Sunday, May 27, 2007
Hitler, a Study in Tyranny
Our book today is Alan Bullock's big 1953 biography Hitler, A Study in Tyranny. It's been lauded from all and sundry since the moment of its publication, and although many Hitler books have been published since it appeared, we here at Stevereads still consider it much the best of the bunch.
The reason for this isn't Bullock's research, although his research is prodigious. Others, most notably Ian Kershaw, have equalled or surpassed the sheer amount of document-shifting Bullock did half a century ago. No, for our money the book's supremacy rests on the hard, clear prose Bullock turns out, page after insightful page. He's an old-fashioned literary stylist of a type rarer and rarer among the ranks of professional historians, most of whom nowadays either resort to slang and simplification or else retreat into academic jargon and specialization.
Although the book's subtitle is "A Study in Tyranny," this is a soup-to-nuts biography, starting with the day Hitler is born (when, presumably, he tyrannized nobody - except, as is the way with babies, his mother). The day, and the locale:
The Europe into which he was born, and which he was finally to destroy, gave an unusual impression of stability and permanence at the time of his birth.
It's neat little piston-strikes like that "which he was finally to destroy" that happen so consistently throughout the book. As in Gibbon or Macaulay or Churchill, they add an indispensable dimesion to mere research. We here at Stevereads are big fans of such writing.
Here's Bullock on Hitler's rise to power:
Nazi propaganda later built up a legend which represented Hitler's coming to power as the upsurge of a great national revival. The truth is more prosaic. Despite the mass support he had won, Hitler came to office in 1933 as the result, not of any irresistible revolutionary or national movement sweeping him into power, nor even of a popular victory at the polls, but as part of a shoddy political deal with the 'Old Gang' whom he'd been attacking for months past. Hitler did not seize power; he was jobbed into office by a backstairs intrigue.
Reading such stern, unflappable prose, you can practically hear all the crypto-fascists out there (and you know who you are) sputtering and gnashing their teeth.
Bullock hates his subject, of course (due in part to good taste but also in large part to shameful legal decisions in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere; we are unlikely ever to read a published Hitler biography by somebody who DOESN'T hate him ... ominous underscoring of something a very wise man once said, namely that a society which makes laws to forbid its citizens from saying wicked things is one dark day away from being a society which makes laws forbidding its citizens from saying anything), but like William Shirer in his magisterial The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, he uses that hatred, paradoxically, to keep him objective. From first to last, he sifts the evidence, does the research, and then actually takes the time to labor over his prose.
The result is unflaggingly interesting, even in a book of some 700 pages. Indeed, the wonderful clear, strong tone follows its subject to the grave, and a little beyond:
The question [of the disposal of Hitler's remains] would scarcely be of interest had the failure to discover the remains not been used to through doubt on the fact of Hitler's death. It is, of course, true that no final incontrovertible evidence in the form of Hitler's dead body has been produced. But the weight of circumstantial evidence set out in Mr. Trevor-Roper's book [The Last Days of Hitler, 1947], when added to the state of Hitler's health at the time and the psychological probability that this was the end he would choose, make a sufficiently strong case to convince all but the constitutionally incredulous - or those who have not bothered to study the evidence.
Reading Hitler biographies, even ones as well-written as this one, is straining, staining, and exhausting business. Necessary, but arduous for the sheer amount of evil that such books thread through your mind. We here at Stevereads recommend severe rationing for the rest of you - maybe even just one such biography in your whole lifetime. If so, make it this one.